TIME politics

9 Takeaways from the 2015 Blizzard Bust

Benjamin Lowy—Getty Images Reportage for TIME A man crosses the street in New York City during a snow storm in New York City on Jan. 26, 2015.

Incentives matter, and politicians have the wrong ones

It may still be snowing somewhere, but it’s not too early to draw some conclusions from the great blizzard bust of 2015. Among them:

Politicians are on power trips. This is true both of Republicans like the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, who honed his command-and-control techniques during Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, and Democrats like the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, and New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, who appeared to see the storm as an opportunity to distract the public from their political problems. When were mayors and governors given the power to ban travel by individual citizens?

Complex systems are hard to predict. The same weathermen who can’t tell for sure one day in advance if New York City will get an 18-inch walloping of snow or a mere dusting are the ones who want us to trust their models for estimated sea level rise by 2100. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan or try to mitigate risks, but it does mean we should apply some skepticism and allow for the possibility that they might be off.

Regional variations matter. It didn’t snow much in New York City. It did snow a lot in Boston. Lots of things in addition to weather also vary with geography. Attitudes toward guns, for example. That’s why it’s often better to handle all but the most core Constitutional freedoms at local levels of government, which have a better handle on local sensibilities than Washington does.

Sometimes the urge to sue is overwhelming. I’m about the least litigious person around and have little to no use for tort lawyers. But where do the businesses of New York and New Jersey go to recover the losses from being essentially ordered to close? In the private sector, if someone got a call as wrong as the governors, the mayor, and the National Weather Service, they’d be on the receiving end of a lawsuit.

Incentives matter. When I moved to Boston from New York a couple of years ago, I couldn’t get over how much better the snow removal is here in Boston. The reason is that in Boston the job is done by private contractors with their own equipment instead of by the New York City method of affixing plows to the front of city-owned garbage trucks operated by unionized city employees.

Religion is one of the strongest forces. A lot of things in Boston and New York are closed, and state authorities are telling people to stay indoors. But the twice-daily prayer service at my synagogue is proceeding as scheduled.

News is often what happens where the reporters are. A snowstorm, real or just predicted, gets a lot more attention when it hits New York City or Washington, D.C. than when it hits Buffalo or Chicago. That’s not because more ordinary people are affected, it’s because that is where the television producers and the newspaper editors happen to live.

The contrarian bet is often the right one. When the politicians, stock market commentators, or weather forecasters say to panic is usually a good time to relax. When they say not to panic, it’s usually a good time to be worried.

Competition and choice have advantages. When there’s one state-run subway system, the governor decides to close it, and it’s closed. In a world with several competing subway lines run by different companies, the different managements may make different choices. Some might close. Some might stay open. Some might stay open and charge higher prices to compensate for the risk of damage to equipment. When the governor decides to ban travel, everyone has to stay off the roads, even if the predicted blizzard turns out to be just a gentle flurry. Better for the governor to just say, “there’s a big snowstorm predicted, please try to stay off the roads if you can so that plows and ambulances can get around,” and let individuals make their own judgments. That’s actually a good approach no matter what the weather is.

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of JFK, Conservative and Samuel Adams: A Life.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

The Theology of the Fourth of July

Amid all the fireworks and barbecue smoke this July 4, consider pausing for a moment to reflect on the one our founding fathers called the Creator.

July 4 is a religious holiday. For this insight, thank John F. Kennedy.

On July 4, 1946, Kennedy — then 29 years old, the Democratic nominee for a Massachusetts Congressional seat, and still a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve — was the featured speaker at the City of Boston’s Independence Day celebration. He spoke at Faneuil Hall, the red-brick building where long ago the colonists had gathered to protest taxes imposed by King George III and his Parliament.

Kennedy began by talking not about taxes, or about the British, or about the consent of the governed, but about religion. “The informing spirit of the American character has always been a deep religious sense. Throughout the years, down to the present, a devotion to fundamental religious principles has characterized American though and action,” he said.

For anyone wondering what this had to do with Independence Day, Kennedy made the connection explicit. “Our government was founded on the essential religious idea of integrity of the individual. It was this religious sense which inspired the authors of the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.’”

It was a theme that Kennedy would return to during the 1960 presidential campaign, when, in a speech at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, he described the Cold War as “a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies; freedom under God versus ruthless, Godless tyranny.” And again in his inaugural address, on January 20, 1961, in Washington, D.C., when he said, “The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

Whatever Kennedy’s motives were as a politician for emphasizing this point, on the historical substance he had it absolutely correct. The Declaration of Independence issued from Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, included four separate references to God. In addition to the “endowed by their Creator” line mentioned by JFK in his July 4 speech, there is an opening salute to “the laws of nature’s God,” an appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the World,” and a closing expression of “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

A signer of the declaration, Samuel Adams, writing to a friend on July 9, wished the declaration had been issued earlier: “If it had been done nine months ago we might have been justified in the sight of God.”

George Washington, announcing the Declaration of Independence to the troops in a General Order dated July 9, wrote, “The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavour to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country….knowing that now the peace and safety of his Country depends (under God) solely on the success of our arms.”

The theology of the country’s founding has tended to get lost in the decades since Kennedy’s death, to the point where if someone unveiled the document anew today, hard-core separation-of-church-and-state types might even see it as a violation of the First Amendment’s clause prohibiting Congress from establishing a religion. The Declaration’s concept of God-given rights certainly is not without its flaws. God, alas, tends to be quite reticent when it comes to weighing in on disagreements about the definition of rights. Some extremists invoke God’s name while attempting to deprive others of rights. Atheists and agnostics, of whom there are increasing numbers these days, are left out.

For all that, there are some signs that a recovery is brewing of the theology of July 4. The Tea Party movement, after all, is not only a call for smaller government (“taxed enough already”), but also a conscious effort to recall the vision of the founders, of the original Boston Tea Party. Dave Brat, the economics professor who upset Eric Cantor in a recent Republican primary for to represent Virginia’s seventh congressional district, said during his campaign, “a belief in God and the faith of our Founders leads to strong moral fiber. That’s probably the most important ingredient in this country.”

So amid all the fireworks and barbecue smoke this July 4, consider pausing for a moment to reflect on the one our founding fathers called the Creator. As Kennedy realized, the American Revolution — and thus the country we live in today — started with God, and with the Founders’ belief in rights that are his gift to us. Whatever your religious views, or lack of them, if you are an American, it’s at least worth understanding the idea on which our nation was founded.

Ira Stoll, author of Samuel Adams: A Life and JFK, Conservative, is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com